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World Mountain Running Championships in Argentina promise sights, sounds and sweat

By Larry Carroll

The eighth-largest country in the world, Argentina is home to 44 million people. Since 2003, it has also been home to the K42 Adventure Marathon – and in 2019 will play host to the World Mountain Running Championships. 

If you want to get an idea of how seriously the residents of Patagonia take the Salomon K42, check out this video “Salomon K42 Adventure Marathon anfitriona del Mundial de Montaña 2019“. While hyping up the 2019 installment, footage is shown of deep blue waters and pristine mountains – as well as blinding snow and hellacious downslopes. “Do you want to show who you are?” the clip teases as if daring participants to sign up. “Do you want to honor your country, your people?”

Of course you do. The only problem is, so do athletes from Uruguay, Ecuador, Chile, Peru, and too many other homelands to count. So the end result is an annual race that has dozens upon dozens of runners out of the starting gate, but precious few at the finish line. 

This year’s festivities take place November 12-17, with a flower ceremony in beautiful San Martin Square awaiting those who earn medals. Organizers are expecting some 2000 runners (a substantial increase over the 345 they attracted in their 2003 inaugural race), with about 60 percent running the 42km and the rest selecting the shorter but no less important 15km. 

 “You will travel to the bottom of South America, to walk in the footprints that the greatest athletes of the world have already left,” touts the video, showing clips of entrants splashing across streams and hesitantly navigating steep terrain. “A footprint that knows about sufferings and feats. A footprint that will remain in history.”

Sure enough, over the years such elite runners as Kilian Jornet, Miguel Heras, Luis Alberto Hernando, Oihana Kortazar and Zaid Ait Malek have left their footprint in Argentina. Perhaps the most beloved K42 athlete (locally speaking, at least) is Cristian Mohamed from Mendoza, Argentina – who won the 2009 and 2011 K42 Adventure Marathons, then returned for last year’s edition to triumphantly take the title back to its country of origin (after six years of foreign winners including Heras, Francisco Pino and Marco de Gasperi). 

“I ran the first six kilometers with the Italian,” Mohamed said after the race of Bernard Dematteis, another K42 favorite. “But it was going at a pace that we would not be able to sustain. I knew that the race begins in the climb to Bayo, in the Raizal and I took care until there.”

Echoing that sentiment was 2018 women’s champion Ragna Debats, a formidable Spanish Dutch runner who similarly conserved her energy for the latter part of the race. “It’s a very demanding race,” she said of the K42. “[I had to be] conservative because I knew that the second part was demanding.”

So, what can this year’s runners expect? A good road map is provided by Sarah Lavender Smith, a long-distance runner, mom and author who wrote extensively about her 2009 run on her blog “An Adventure Marathon” in Argentina’s Lake District Lives Up to the Hype“, calling it “epic” and “unforgettable.”

“The Salomon K42 calls itself an ‘Adventure Marathon,’ but I didn’t expect its course or my experience on it to go to such extremes,” she writes, citing her marathon resume. “Suffice to say I was reminded that it’s best to expect the unexpected and prepare for any and everything that the course might deliver.”

While fondly describing “that magical, crazy day when I traversed a peak in the Andes overlooking lakes and ski towns,” Smith bluntly recalls the dangers of mountain running.

“I was grasping at branches of shrubs that lined a narrow chute of mud and snow on a stretch of trail that seemed as steep and slippery as a wet playground slide,” she recalls. “At one point I had to scramble to the side to avoid being toppled by a guy who lost his grip and came skidding butt-first toward me.”

Beginning in the town, racers are given a powerful push-off via shouts of encouragement from the supportive community. Within moments, however, the Patagonian primeval forest blankets participants in near silence – broken only, no doubt, by the rhythm of their breathing. After a loop of going up and down throughout the forest, on single trails that seem to weave between untouched natural beauty, runners begin making their way up to the base of Cerro Bayo ski station – the point where the contenders are often separated from the pretenders.

Check points offer food and drink, while icy rivers reward those who splash through them with enough cold water to revitalize the legs. Then comes the vertical path named RAIZAL II, as forest turns to snow and the threats evolve along with it. At some point, you view La Angostura down below, then begin the downhill descent, back into the forest and through curves and countercurves that would offer a fun rollercoaster ride – if your muscles weren’t on fire by this point. It all ends back in the town, with cheers on the main avenue.

Who will survive this year to see that celebration? Who will enjoy the hot stew and celebratory party with a medal on their chest? Once again, the time has come for the hype to fade away – and the athletes to start moving their feet. 

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